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A picture taken in April 1960 shows people looking at a damage street in Valdivia after a violent earthquake struck the area 21 April 1960.

STF

On the waterfront in the centre of this southern Chilean city, Monica Paredes, 31, was still in disbelief.

When the earthquake struck in the middle of the night, her home rocked back and forth, progressively stronger, for several minutes, sending her television and furniture flying across the house. "We were sleeping, and then the house began to rise up," Ms. Paredes said.

Her stepfather, Armando Peralta, 73, immediately recognized the magnitude of this earthquake and sought to keep the family calm.

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Mr. Peralta had a good frame of reference. He was in Valdivia on May 22, 1960, when the worst earthquake in recorded history devastated the coastal city at magnitude 9.5 on the Richter scale.

The deadly tsunami that resulted from the Great Chile Earthquake of 1960 was eight times more powerful than the tsunami that ravaged southeast Asia in December, 2004, and contained 10 times the force of Saturday's 8.8-magnitude tremor.

The Chilean tsunami of 1960 caused extensive damage throughout the Pacific region, menacing Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan and other far-off lands less than 24 hours after the earthquake struck. On Hawaii's Hilo Island, a 10-metre wave smashed 1,600 homes and left nearly 200 people dead.

But Valdivia was the most affected. One of Chile's most prosperous cities at the time, its factories lining the waterfront were completely destroyed. About 40 per cent of Valdivia's homes were eliminated. Fortunately, because the disaster occurred on a Sunday afternoon, when most people were not at work, loss of life was minimized. Still, an estimated 2,000 residents died.

Fifty years later, there are scattered reminders.

Along General Lagos Street, a tall, black smokestack is all that remains of a former electric plant. On one side street, the graffiti-covered, black-shell frame of a former shoe factory sits abandoned. Most noticeable, the ground floor of some of the elaborate, 18th-century-built German neoclassical-style homes are now two metres below street level.

The earthquake that hit Chile early Saturday morning, says Sergio Barrientos, a geologist at the University of Chile, "was 50 times greater in intensity than what recently hit Haiti."

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Haiti, however, suffered a far greater loss of life, while most of Chile's buildings have surprisingly stood up to a much more powerful earthquake. Experts say that is a direct legacy of the 1960 Valdivia earthquake, which led to safer building codes for structures around the country.

Earthquake-proof buildings or not, Laura Sierra, 25, said the heightened fear from her mother, another survivor of the 1960 earthquake, was heard loud and clear when the earthquake struck at 3:34 a.m. on Saturday.

Her mother screamed "help" at the top of her lungs as they hurried down the stairs from the fourth-floor of their rickety apartment building. They were sure it was going to collapse.

"We were trembling on the street in our pyjamas watching the street move below us for what seemed like 15 minutes," Ms. Sierra said.

And the concrete dock at the Muelle Schuster, the main river port in the centre of town, built in the aftermath of the 1960 earthquake, split into two. Chilean naval Captain Srdjan Darrigrande, who is in charge of the port, said boats are prohibited from heading out to sea for the next three days.

He said that though the biggest damage is likely behind Chile, they must take precautions.

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There have been more than 70 aftershocks already, and experts say over the next few weeks the country will experience tremors, and there is always the threat of a new earthquake.

"We don't want to create hysteria," Capt. Darrigrande said. "We are encouraging people to stay calm."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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